- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey can’t conclude a mother abused and neglected her baby because the child was born exhibiting symptoms of methadone withdrawal due to the mother’s use of the drug, the state Supreme Court ruled in an opinion released Monday.

The unanimous ruling reversed an earlier appeals court ruling that allowed the woman to retain custody of the boy but under state supervision. The Supreme Court referred the case back to the appellate division to determine if there were any other factors that could warrant a finding of abuse and neglect.

According to court documents, the woman, identified by the pseudonym “Yvonne,” had become addicted to a prescription painkiller after she was injured in a car accident. When she became pregnant, she was advised by hospital personnel to take methadone because to suddenly stop taking the painkiller could jeopardize her pregnancy.

The baby was born in early 2011 with symptoms of methadone withdrawal and spent several weeks in the hospital. The state Division of Youth and Family Services filed a complaint shortly afterward, seeking to have the baby put in state custody.

A family court judge ruled in favor of the state and cited additional factors, including an incident described as a “hostile encounter” involving the woman’s husband at the hospital, and her prior drug history, which dated back to 2005 and allegedly included the use of cocaine and heroin, though she wasn’t alleged to have used those drugs while pregnant.

Under the ruling, the mother was allowed to have custody of the baby boy but under state supervision.

The appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling but focused on the harm caused by the methadone withdrawal, writing that “the fact that defendant obtained the methadone from a legal source does not preclude our consideration of the harm it caused to the newborn.”

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling faulted the appellate court for focusing solely on the baby’s withdrawal symptoms and cautioned against creating a “perverse disincentive” for pregnant women to seek programs to treat their addiction.

“Absent exceptional circumstances, a finding of abuse or neglect cannot be sustained based solely on a newborn’s enduring methadone withdrawal following a mother’s timely participation in a bona fide treatment program prescribed by a licensed health care professional to whom she has made full disclosure,” Justice Barry Albin wrote in the 6-0 opinion.

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